“In a dreary Yankee prison where a rebel soldier lay.”
That is the opening line to the Charlie Moore classic “The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier,” which Moore had recorded on his 1974 Old Homestead release, The Fiddler. But it was the Country Gentlemen’s cover of the song a year earlier on their 1973 Rebel album Award Winning Country Gentlemen, that really put the song on the charts. Moore’s composition, along with The Gentlemen’s version, made sure that the song would soon become a bluegrass music standard, recorded by local and national artists alike.
It has been speculated that Moore’s inspiration may have come from another ‘rebel’ song recorded by Mac Wisemen in 1966 on the Wise label. Wiseman’s version was titled “The Legend of the Irish Rebel” and appears to have been taken nearly word-for-word from the Irish ballad of the 1920’s, “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland,” with Wiseman omitting the last verse and inserting the line “and the Irish soldier died,” and he included the chord changes between verses. The melody of the song is said to come from a traditional sea shanty “Rolling Home” and this same melody was used in another song from the same period, “Kevin Barry.” It was the political and historical events in Ireland in the 1920’s that gave birth to these songs.
The first event was the arrest of Terence McSwiney, an Irish playwright, author, politician, and Lord Mayor of Cork at the time. McSwiney was arrested by the British for sedition and sentenced to Brixton prison. McSwiney went on a 74-day hunger strike and subsequently died in October 1920. Two songs that commemorated McSwiney’s death soon appeared. The first was a classical piece by composer Swan Hennessey titled “String Quartet No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 49.” The other was the song “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland.” This song had been covered by many artists, mostly Irish, such as Teresa Duffey and Frank McCaffery.
The second event of the period occurred shortly after McSwiney’s death. In November 1920, a young Irish rebel named Kevin Barry was arrested, convicted and hanged for his participation in an Irish operation that resulted in the deaths of three British soldiers. With Barry’s death coming so closely on heels of McSwiney’s, it was natural that another tribute song would soon appear, hence “Kevin Barry,” whose melody is the same as the familiar “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland.” This song was covered by British Skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan.
Further research shows that the theme for the lyrics of “Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland” possibly came from an 1867 poem by Caroline Norton entitled “Bingen On The Rhine.” This was a poem about an Irish soldier of the legion who lay dying in Algiers, in which one can see some similarity in the basic theme, as the first line in says. “In a dreary Brixton prison where an Irish rebel lay.”
Whether Moore may have taken his source as Wiseman’s “Irish Rebel,” or “Shall My Soul…,” he simply adapted the lyrics to reflect his concept of a Civil War soldier as opposed to the Irish rebel as in the original, hence “The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier.” While this song will forever be attributed to the creative mind of Charlie Moore, it is always interesting to discover where the sources of such songs come from and how history is often the catalyst for a song’s creation. Sources for this article include internet searches, liner notes, postings on Mudcat Café, and YouTube selections of the above songs. Comparisons of the lyrics can be found at
www.swfostermusic.com/lyrics01.html and www.swfostermusic.com/lyrics02.html.